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Sonoma County flooding in 2019 caused $56 million in public infrastructure damage

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Recovery cost estimates for Sonoma County infrastructure from February’s flooding have more than doubled, reaching $56 million and ratcheting up the taxpayer tab to $14 million, according to the latest estimates used by the county to develop a list of projects for FEMA reimbursements.

The “Damage Inventory List,” sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday, contains 51 projects, and represents months of work by Department of Public Works staff to determine flood-damaged sites eligible for FEMA’s public disaster assistance program.

That work vastly expanded the scope of recovery from flooding that sparked more than 100 landslides and slipouts in Sonoma County, with cost estimates for public infrastructure repairs soaring to $56 million from an initial projection of $23 million in the weeks following the flooding.

The finalized list of needed repairs kicks off another monthslong process to design fixes for the dozens of projects.

“This is a huge milestone,” Public Works Director Johannes Hoevertsz said.

The California Office of Emergency Services and environmental groups will work with the county to finalize projects before FEMA gives a final ruling on repayment.

Because President Donald Trump declared in May a major disaster in Sonoma County, federal law dictates a minimum of 75% FEMA reimbursement for eligible local recovery projects. The catch is FEMA’s ability to determine which projects are eligible.

“There’s always a chance that they may disqualify a project, but it’s a small chance,” Hoevertsz said. “We’ve been working with a really good team with FEMA. Anything that may not qualify, we’re weeding them out.”

The department’s project list was cut to 51 from 56 between July and September, but still represents a $56 million price tag for public infrastructure damage. In total, the floods caused $155 million in damage. But the total includes $91.6 million in damage to private homes, which won’t qualify for FEMA help. That’s because 151 homes sustained major damage, far fewer than the 800 traditionally needed to trigger disaster aid in the state.

The increased costs, including taxpayer-funded recovery jumping to about $14 million from an initial $3 million estimate, are a result of numerous site visits to determine the full extent of damage from floods. And the repairs, which Hoevertsz said would take three to five years, will take place in concert with ongoing repairs from prior flooding.

On Tuesday, for example, Hoevertsz and his staff will ask the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to approve contracts for flooding repairs stemming from early 2017 flooding events.

“It’s a long process,” Hoevertsz said. “As frustrating as it can be, people have to understand we normally don’t have 51 projects of this type. Under normal circumstances, it would take 15-20 years to do this.”

Hoevertsz said his staff has gotten better — and quicker — with FEMA work, given the number of disasters that have rained down upon the county. Sonoma County Supervisor Chairman David Rabbitt said he agrees, and expressed his appreciation for public works staff members’ hard work.

Still, the nature of the work makes it take too long, Rabbitt said.

“We’ve grown into knowing how to work the system, but it still takes too long,” Rabbitt said.

As work begins to design final fixes for flood- damaged roads and bridges, public works staff is still working to hire contractors to “winterize” some sites with temporary fixes to prevent more damage during the next rainy season.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors months ago declared an emergency in the county, and Hoevertsz said he will ask for that status to continue, enabling public works to more quickly work through the contracting process. Basically, the emergency declaration allows county agencies to bypass typical bidding practices.

“Some of the sites are in bad shape, especially King Ridge Road and Geysers Road,” Hoevertsz said. “We want to (get to those) before this winter sets in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-326-2964 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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